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Meehan Town Meeting addresses affordability of college

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AREA — Concerned with the rising cost of higher education, Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Massachusetts, has introduced HR 5098, a bill he calls “the College Debt Alleviation Act of 2006.” The bill’s aim is to make college tuition more affordable for families by raising the maximum tax deduction for tuition and related expenses as well as reducing federal banking subsidies that would result in a decrease in interest rate caps to 6.8 percent.

Meehan’s concern about the situation was prompted by what he feels has been a decrease in the availability of both state and federal funding for higher education in recent years.

”I don’t think Massachusetts has contributed nearly enough money to higher education,” said Meehan at a public meeting held at Lancaster Town Hall on April 15.

Speaking to a handful of area residents, Meehan said although state funding has been lacking, so have federal contributions.

”I don’t think the priorities of the federal government are in order,” Meehan said. He cited the cost of the war on terror and tax cuts as major concerns in a veiled criticism of the administration. “I think Washington has its priorities backwards. In the long run, I think we’ll pay a heavy price for that as a country.”

Held last Saturday, residents from Lancaster, Ayer, Berlin, Bolton, Boxborough, Groton, Harvard and Shirley were in attendence. They were invited to join Meehan, Brandeis University representative Peter Giumette and Paul Linsky, of the Massachusetts Educational and Financing Authority (MEFA), for a panel discussion and question period involving the rising cost of college tuition and how to improve the availability of higher education.

”For America to remain the most competitive and innovative nation, we must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity,” said Meehan. “Investing in our education system is the key to achieving this goal. Sadly, a college education is now out of the reach for many Massachusetts students. Now more than ever, it is important that families understand federal, state and private financial aid opportunities, as well as the college admissions process.”

According to information released by Meehan’s office, tuition and fees at public colleges in Massachusetts have increased by more than 70 percent in the last 10 years and by nearly 60 percent at private colleges.

For private institutions, the increase is even more dramatic going from an average of $16,952 to $26,723.

Meehan’s findings conclude that inflation did not account for the cost increases because prices have gone up more than twice as fast as the rate of inflation at both public and private institutions.

”At private schools, the total cost rose by 53 percent, and at public schools, the total cost rose by 65 percent while inflation only accounted for a growth of 25 percent,” said Meehan.

As a result of these figures, said Meehan an analysis conducted over the previous month indicated that as many as 400,000 students nationwide would have no chance at a college education.

”To grow our economy, to create jobs, requires us to educate our people,” said Meehan. “We need to do better in terms of providing financial aid and scholarships, etc.”

The topics raised by residents in just over an hour’s worth of discussion included concern over counting a family’s life savings in evaluating eligibility for a college loan or grant, difficulty of larger families to pay or raise enough money to afford college for their children, help for families that would allow them to begin saving for their children’s college education earlier in life, and the competition between public and private colleges for scarce government dollars.

In his remarks, Linsky attempted to allay some of the common misconceptions about eligibility for state aid. The MEFA representative assured those present that it was far easier to receive educational funding today than in years past. He dismissed as “myths” such as beliefs that bad grades, a student’s personal savings or ability to work would disqualify them for aid. Only a family’s immediate income is taken into account in evaluating eligibility.

For his part, Giumette admitted that a good portion of the rising cost of higher education is due to salaries with colleges under pressure to offer pay its professors at market rates.

”In part, I sense that people do feel that a college education today is considered by many to be a right rather than an option,” said Giumette. “I actually feel that, in part, more people feel that getting a college education is a requirement to succeed.”

”I guess it might be possible for an enterprising person to earn their way through college,” said Linsky, “but it’s far from feasible because of the cost incurred.”

Linsky did say that if a student worked after high school to save money and continued to work while going through college at night taking a little longer to earn a diploma, that it was possible for them to get a college education on their own without government aid.

However, in terms of eligibility for government tuition aid, Linsky revealed the startling fact that not only does the federal government assume for educational purposes that parents continue to be financially responsible for their children until they reach the age of 24, but that they continue to remain responsible even if their children no longer live at home.

When asked if it might be the availability of government money itself that could be driving up tuition costs, Meehan said he didn’t think so.

”Providing young people with a first-class education is more expensive than it has ever been,” said Meehan. “I think the reality of providing them with a first-class education is more expensive than ever. But as depressing as it is to see that the cost of education is going up, students in Massachusetts still have access to the best colleges in the world, and we need to make them more affordable.”

Although the fine spring-like weather may have been the cause of a light turnout at Lancaster’s Town Hall, Meehan remained upbeat about Saturday’s event.

”I was satisfied to see that local cable television was here to help get the message out,” said Meehan. “I like to keep in touch with people all over my district. Sometimes they don’t come when it rains and sometimes they don’t come when it’s a beautiful day like today. But if in the end we can help provide people with an affordable college education, it will all be worth it.”

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